Law, War, and the History of Time

45 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2009 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

Date Written: April 7, 2009


This paper examines wartime as a form of time, arguing that assumptions about the temporality of war are a feature of American legal thought. Time is thought to be linear and episodic, moving from one kind of time (peacetime) to another kind of time (wartime) in sequence. In this way of thinking, war is by definition temporary, so that war’s impact on law is limited in time. This understanding of war and time, however, is in tension with the practice of war in 20th century U.S. history, for American involvement in overseas military action has been continuous.

Drawing upon works on the history of time, the paper argues that our conception of “wartime” is not inevitable. Instead, like other forms of time, it is a product of social life. The paper turns to World War II, which is thought of as a traditional war, with clear temporal limits. But this war is harder to place in time than is generally assumed, as the different legal endings to the war span over a period of seven years. The fuzziness in the war’s timing affects scholarship on rights and war, as scholars who believe themselves to be writing about the same wartime are not always studying the same years.

The difficulty in confining World War II in time is an illustration of a broader feature of the twentieth century: wartimes bleed into each other, and it is hard to find peace on the twentieth century American timeline. Meanwhile, as all twentieth century wars occurred outside U.S. borders, a feature of American military strategy has sometimes been to increase the engagement of the American people in a war, and at other times to insulate them. Isolation from war enabled the nation to participate in war without most citizens perceiving themselves to be in a wartime. The paper closes with a discussion of the way anxiety about temporality surfaces in contemporary cases relating to Guantánamo detainees, as the Supreme Court confronted the possibility that endless war might mean endless detention.

Keywords: war, wartime, time, rights, law and war

Suggested Citation

Dudziak, Mary L., Law, War, and the History of Time (April 7, 2009). California Law Review, 2010, USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 09-6, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Mary L. Dudziak (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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